Performing full length, high quality shows for people who know nothing about juggling. (a North American Perspective)
We have a problem. We love juggling way more than most people. In fact, most of the world doesn’t really have much interest in juggling. Sure they might find some of our tricks and stunts mildly amusing and even think some of it is absolutely amazing – for a while. But they don’t really care about it. Want proof? Start asking non-jugglers you meet to name one, just one, “famous” juggler. I rarely meet any lay person who can name a famous juggler. (Of course, depending on how you define famous, there may not even be any truly famous jugglers)
We’re not the only variety art with this problem. Ask the same person to name some famous magicians. It’s likely they will have to work to name three. But at least they can name some famous magicians. When I travel through customs I will often just say I’m a magician, or a “juggler/magician.” Why? Because the average person cannot fathom a good one hour juggling show. But the average person can fathom a good one hour magic show. Even if I tell them I’m a juggler, three sentences later they will often still call me a magician. Heck, after doing a full one hour juggling show, I have people who will see me later and say, “Look, there’s the magician!”
But don’t get discouraged, there is hope! Over the years I’ve had many people say after a show, “I hate jugglers! I wasn’t even going to come to the show. But I loved you!” Or, “I’ve seen a lot of jugglers in my time, but you’re the best one I’ve ever seen!”
Now I will be the first to admit that I am far, far, from being the world’s best juggler. Technically, I’m probably not even the best juggler these people have ever seen. By why do they say that? I’m convinced it’s because I strive to be not just a good juggler, but a good entertainer.
This article is about how to perform great shows for people who know nothing about the technical side of our craft. Therefore this material will apply to many variety artists including magicians, ventriloquists, musicians, etc.
Right off the top we have to get it out in the open that we are not performing for other jugglers! We are performing for people who have no idea that 6 balls are far more difficult than 3 torches. But it doesn’t matter. They would rather see the torches. We are performing for people who will forget the five club back crosses but remember the joke you made about the guy who came in late. We are performing for people that really think the guy they saw on TV last year really was juggling 10 balls. We are performing for people who would rather see you “eat the apple” than do 5 up pirouette. (Or even 3 up)
That’s the bad news. But the good news is, we are performing for people who will like what you do, if they like who you are.
Since we are talking about full length shows, let’s remind ourselves that we are not talking about an amazing 7 minute juggling routine that would fit in a circus or variety act. There is a place for these acts and sometimes wish I had the skill and interest for this sort of thing. (Actually I have done it. But the pressure is so great. What if I drop? No comedy to cover it up, etc). A “full length show could range anywhere from 30-90 minutes. I think a good length for a show, in today’s North American society is about 45 minutes. If you are in a proper theater where people have purchased tickets however, 75-100 minutes works well depending on whether or not there is an intermission.
I perform mainly for cruise ships, after dinner events or private events, and at conventions and churches or para-church organizations where I would also share a message.
When I’m sharing a message I will often go about 70 minutes. On cruise ships you need a main show of 45-50 solid minutes, and a second show of 15-20 minutes. The problem here is not just the length of material needed, but the fact that you need 2 openers and 2 closers. What’s worse is that sometimes you have to do the 20 minutes first, and then the big show later in the week. It can be difficult to know what to do that’s good enough to make them want to come back, but leaves great stuff for the main show. I have seen many acts come out to the ships before they were ready. Be sure you are ready because you only get one chance to make a first impression. I did not start ships until I had been full time for five years, and I was most definitely not ready until that point.
Lets talk about how to make juggling itself more entertaining and interesting to a crowd. Let’s start with the obvious. Music. I know many performers that don’t use music, perhaps because they’re very strong in comedy or perhaps because they don’t want the bother. But I think it’s a no-brainer for the simple fact that it increases production value. Also it can get people’s attention, help them focus on what’s going on, set the tone of the show (or piece) and can draw them in emotionally. Don’t forget to think about your audience demographics when choosing your music. There are many songs I would love to juggle to, but know the audience wouldn’t like them. For example, if you’re performing on a cruise ship with an average age of 65+, think twice about using that techno or heavy metal piece. You might get away with it, but we’re talking about being the best entertainer – entertaining the audience, not yourself.
The second obvious choice for creating interest is comedy. People love to laugh, and if you can do the same trick with a good joke about it, they will not only love the trick more but remember it better too. I’m not naturally funny. I have stand up comedian friends, who are the same on stage as off. They are always on. But I’m not that way. I’ve developed most of my comedy the hard way: from the ground up. Of course there are standard drop lines that we all use, and even lines we find in books. But the best comedy comes from experimentation and your own crazy imagination. That’s why I highly recommend that people who want to start performing, start with busking festivals. Street performing is hard, but that’s why it’s good to start there. It throws you into the deep end. You have to learn how to get a crowd, keep a crowd, and get some money from them. You have to deal with all kinds of external distractions which train you in improvisation and comedy even faster. Often you perform several times a day and can therefore experiment with different jokes and comedy routines when it doesn’t “matter.” (ex: no one is “paying” for a polished show)
Please please please don’t be an act that has volunteers on stage for 7 out of 10 routines. After a while people start to think one of two things: They start to worry that you’re going to “pick on” them and can’t enjoy the show as much. Or they may subtly think you may not have that much “actual” talent yourself. Volunteers can be the highlight of your show, putting it right over the top! But a bad volunteer can really bring the show down. Picking volunteers is an art form, and after 26 years full time I can tell you that I still sometimes pick bad ones. I’ve had the best luck, trying to find people who look like they’re having fun. I turn the volunteer finding process itself into a comedy routine by saying “I need a fun loving person who wants to go home a hero.” Then as I look at a certain section of people, I say in a funny voice, “Grumpy section!” I might even ask the organizer before the event if they can point out some “fun loving people who everyone knows” to be a volunteer. Much more has been written about the use of volunteers that you can find elsewhere. From what I’ve written, you can tell my philosophy is to make sure that they always had fun on stage and go home the hero. I’m much more conservative in this area than others.
Other ways to make your juggling more interesting include, but are not limited to: Using themes, stories, explanation of how a trick works, satire, recalling ways a trick failed in the past, messing up on purpose to build suspense, and using varied and unexpected types of props. Volumes could be written on these topics, but I will move on to a more important point about being a good entertainer if you’re a juggler. It almost doesn’t matter what you do, but how you do it. You must be watchable. You must have stage presence. Part of the thing that makes movies stars movie stars is that they are watchable. Being good looking can help, although its not all about that. I once overheard an audience member who left a singer’s show say, “He has an absolutely amazing voice! If he was good looking I may have stayed to watch him.” Sad but true. So how can those of us who are not naturally George Cloonies or Nicole Kidmans help ourselves out? Here are some suggestions. Costuming, stage presence, like-ability, personal grooming, charisma.
Kit Summers, the famous juggler once told me that you should not be able to walk into a store in your costume, without people knowing you’re a performer (or at least that there’s something really different about you!) Compliment your audience by what you wear. Show them that you care enough to get dressed up. They want to see you wearing something that they can’t wear. That’s why people love to look at movie stars. When I perform for audiences older than I am, my costumes are somewhat more conservative. When I perform for people younger than I am, I wear a much less conservative outfit. When you are inconspicuously walking around before a show, and you overhear someone whisper, “Hey, there’s the magician! (Juggler, performer, et. al) then you’ve probably dressed right. I absolutely hate juggling in a jacket because its restrictiveness, but I force myself to do it for parts of the show because it looks so darn good, and costume changes add variety, and production value.
You must look comfortable and you must look like you’re having fun. As a matter of fact the best shows from my perspective are the ones where I truly have fun. But you must get to the point where even when the audience is awful, the lighting is horrible, the stage is pathetic and the sound is even worse, that you have a smile on your face and you really look like you’re having fun and want to be there.
I love juggling. Its fun to do, great exercise and offers a never-ending personal challenge. But not everyone does. That doesn’t mean that you can’t do juggling shows that will blow people away. Just remember that if you want to do a memorable, amazing, fun, but most importantly entertaining full length show, your technical skill are just one small piece of the puzzle. For more information about being a good performer, check out my other article entitled Are you “Watchable? A discussion on stage presence, showmanship, and how to be a better entertainer, regardless of your skills.